Stratford Hall, Birthplace of Robert E. Lee
An unidentified woman and child stand on the side stairway of Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, which appears somewhat threadbare in this late nineteenth-century photograph. Located in Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck of Virginia, the H-shaped brick mansion was built in the 1730s by Thomas Lee and was home to the family for generations. Five of Thomas Lee's sons were heroes of the American Revolution, John Adams referring to them as "this band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable, who like the Greeks at Thermopylae, stood in the gap, in defense of their country." The Revolutionary War cavalry commander "Light Horse Harry" Lee (Henry Lee III) was a cousin who married into the family and eventually took over the plantation. Henry Lee famously eulogized George Washington in Congress with the words, "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen." After the death of his first wife, Lee married Ann Hill Carter from Shirley Plantation; on January 19, 1806 or 1807, she gave birth to Robert E. Lee in the southeast bedroom at Stratford Hall—the so-called Mother's Room where many of the Lee children were born.
In the postwar years, Henry Lee served as a congressman (1799–1800) and governor of Virginia (1791–1794), but he steadily lost money and reputation because of unwise land speculation. He was sent to debtor's prison while Robert was still an infant, and within several years the family was forced to leave Stratford Hall. In 1813, Henry Lee, badly beaten by a political mob and dodging his creditors, skipped bail and sailed for the West Indies. Robert never saw his father again.
Although he only lived at Stratford Hall as a young child, Robert E. Lee remembered the place fondly. When the Civil War began in 1861, his wife and children were displaced from their beloved home in northern Virginia, Arlington House. On Christmas Day of that year, Lee wrote to his wife: "In the absence of a home, I wish I could purchase 'Stratford.' That is the only other place that I could go to … that would inspire me with feelings of pleasure and local love. You and the girls could remain there in quiet. It is a poor place, but we could make enough cornbread and bacon for our support, and the girls could weave us clothes. I wonder if it is for sale and at how much."
Lee never acquired the property but, in 1929, the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the memory of Robert E. Lee and his family, purchased the plantation and began a long restoration process.